The first person to annotate a poem by T.S. Eliot was T.S. Eliot. His notes on The Waste Land (1922) were composed partly so that his 433-line poem could be issued by his American publishers Boni & Liveright as a book, and partly, as he recalled in ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ (1956), ‘with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism’. ‘Not only the title,’ Eliot observed in his introductory paragraph to The Waste Land’s notes,
but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.
In these seemingly sober, useful, self-deprecating sentences lurks the MacGuffin, to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s term, that reaches its epic, mind-boggling climax in the publication, nearly a century on, of Faber’s two all-comprehending new tomes, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. The editors promise to ‘elucidate the difficulties’ of Eliot’s work by tracing every possible verbal overlap between the words used in his poems and the words used by other writers, both famous and obscure, in texts that range from Dante’s Divine Comedy to an anonymous scribe’s record of the Acts and Resolutions of the 29th General Assembly of Iowa (1902).
The lines of Eliot’s that most often occurred to me as I worked my way through these thousand or so pages of commentary (set in 10-point type) are from Sweeney Agonistes. In the course of his narrative about a man who ‘did a girl in’, and then kept her body in a bath with a gallon of Lysol, Sweeney explains that the murderer would periodically visit him:
sweeney: He used to come and see me sometimes
I’d give him a drink and cheer him up.
doris: Cheer him up?
dusty: Cheer him up?
sweeney: Well here again that don’t apply
But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.
One of the side effects of reading through this edition’s extraordinarily wide-ranging and inclusive notes is the periodical rising of a Sweeney-like urge to declare: ‘That don’t apply.’ Like Sweeney, every poem has got to use words, and those words will also necessarily have been used in the work of earlier or contemporary writers.
To begin at the very beginning: is there a meaningful relationship between ‘Let us go then …’ (the opening words of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’), and the phrase ‘Let us go now …’ which occurs in Chapter 40 of Daniel Deronda (with ‘street’ and ‘sky’ later in the paragraph); between ‘When the evening is spread out against the sky’ (line 2 of ‘Prufrock’) and Thomas Hardy’s ‘forms there flung/Against the sky’ (‘The Abbey Mason’); between ‘certain half-deserted streets’ (line 4 of ‘Prufrock’) and ‘he sought out a certain street and number’ in Chapter 20 of Little Dorrit; or, moving beyond literature, between that phrase and the recording of a payment made to ‘R.D. Bennett, for sprinkling a certain street’ in the aforementioned Acts and Resolutions of the 29th General Assembly of Iowa; between Prufrock’s ‘overwhelming question’ (line 10) and the observation in Chapter 23 of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers that ‘The whole company were a good deal astounded with this overwhelming question’?
Certainly Eliot’s mind was a vast, labyrinthine echo chamber, and perhaps more than any other canonical poet of the English language, with the possible exception of his great antagonist John Milton, he was conscious of the previous uses by other writers of the words he deployed in his poems. But what exactly is the difference, one can’t help wondering while reading such notes, between an interesting allusion or echo and a mere verbal coincidence? And where should limits be set for the recording of these echoes or coincidences in the age of the internet, when it’s possible to pursue any phrase ad infinitum? Should notes in a scholarly edition aspire to the condition of an entry in the OED? Anyone with an interest in Eliot will be grateful for, and marvel at, the truly extraordinary knowledge of all things Eliotic that underpins these volumes, but – to get my quibble out of the way early, so that I can praise the numerous virtues of this edition with a clear conscience – it is not always easy to discern the value of the links the editors posit between Eliot’s words and the analogous phrases, drawn from a bewildering array of writers, presented for comparison in the commentary.
Those first ten lines of ‘Prufrock’, for instance, elicit, as well as the citations I’ve already mentioned, quotations from Jules Laforgue, W.E. Henley, Théophile Gautier, Russell S. Fowler (author of The Operating Room and the Patient, a 1906 book which includes a reference to ‘anaesthetic tables’), William James, James Thomson, William Acton, Charles-Louis Philippe, W.R. Burnett (a crime novelist in whose High Sierra – published in 1940 – the phrase ‘She was … a one-night-stand type’ occurs), Edward Winslow Martin (author of The Secrets of the Great City, 1868, which mentions ‘cheap hotels’), the London Baedeker, Cooper’s The Prairie and Hamlet’s ‘overwhelming question’ – ‘“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Perhaps also OED 6: “to pop the question (slang or colloq.), to propose marriage” (1725)’. In addition, the notes on these ten lines draw our attention to eight other Eliot poems, as well as including quotations from The Cocktail Party and a number of his essays and letters. It’s worth remarking at the very least that the parameters established for this edition constitute a new frontier in the use of notes to record verbal echoes and overlaps, as well as to include tangential facts. The quote from The Prairie, for instance, is adduced because Eliot always sounds the final ‘t’ in ‘restaurants’ in his various recorded readings of ‘Prufrock’; ‘OED,’ the editors add, ‘gives a pronunciation in which it is not sounded, and the spelling of its first citation, from Fenimore Cooper, 1827, points to the French derivation: “At the most renowned of the Parisian restaurans”.’ This is a good instance of the sort of knowledge you will pick up from Ricks and McCue’s commentary as an unexpected bonus. It illustrates their generous wish to impart as much information as possible, and while their method throws up all manner of fascinating trouvailles, surely even the most devoted Eliot scholars will occasionally find themselves scratching their heads when ordinary words such as ‘toast’ (‘the taking of a toast and tea’) are glossed by an OED definition – ‘Bread so browned by fire, electric heat etc.’ The editors’ kitchen-sink approach to annotation makes even Longman editions, such as Ricks’s own wonderful three-volume edition of Tennyson – who published an awful lot more poetry than Eliot – seem modest by comparison.
Modernist writing often foregrounded in unignorable ways the issues raised in the opening sentences of Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land. The difficulties presented through his use of allusions and source materials required elucidation by reference to other books, and readers had to be persuaded that getting to grips with an anthropological text on medieval legends in order to understand the poem that it supposedly inspired was ‘worth the trouble’. On occasion Eliot himself expressed remorse for having kickstarted the business of allusion-hunting with his ‘bogus scholarship’, while conceding that the poem and its notes were wed for ever: ‘I have sometimes thought of getting rid of these notes; but now they can never be unstuck. They have had almost greater popularity than the poem itself – anyone who bought my book of poems, and found that the notes to The Waste Land were not in it, would demand his money back.’ Maybe so, but Eliot’s notes hardly offer a reader-friendly exposition of the poem’s mysteries: they assume proficiency in French, Italian, Latin and German, and they struck Arnold Bennett, whose help Eliot sought while he was at work on Sweeney Agonistes, as a spoof: ‘I said to him,’ Bennett recorded in his Journals, ‘“I want to ask you a question. It isn’t an insult. Were the notes to Wastelands a lark or serious? I thought they were a skit.” He said that they were serious, and not more of a skit than some things in the poem itself.’
Much of Eliot’s poker-faced humour – like much of the savagery or violence in his work – derives from his confounding of the difference between ‘a lark’ and the ‘serious’, and the mock scholarly aspect of the notes is to the fore in annotations such as the one with which he glosses the lines ‘To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours/With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine’: ‘A phenomenon which I have often noticed.’ At times he seems almost to be taunting the philistine English poetry-lover who can’t see beyond the Georgians, as when he recommends to those unable to read Sanskrit Paul Deussen’s 1897 translation into German of Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad, where the ‘fable of the meaning of the Thunder’ can be found. His note, on the other hand, on Tiresias (the blind ancient Greek prophet who had been both man and woman) suggested a way of reading The Waste Land that has had a deep and lasting influence on the poem’s reception, for it implied a coherent overall plan and a way of understanding the various characters the poem presents:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
This seems to encourage us to view The Waste Land not as a ‘heap of broken images’ or a series of sprawling, disconnected ‘fragments’ shored against the poet’s ruins, but as a skilfully orchestrated jeremiad by a prophet-like creator who, rather than a pulpit, uses collage and allusion and other avant-garde (as well as traditional) poetic techniques to alert his followers to their perilous spiritual state. The note acts as both a declaration of the ‘impersonality’ of the poem and as a kind of prophylactic insulating Eliot from Tiresias. We are not, it warns, to assume that the poet is dramatising his own divided state and dilemmas through his all-uniting ‘personage’, although, reading against the grain, the note may also prompt us to think that this is exactly the use he is making of the old man with wrinkled dugs who foresees and foresuffers all.
The impressive range of references in Eliot’s notes increased the sense among his initial readers that the poem was the expression of a mind bringing to bear a formidable intelligence and an exemplary understanding of culture on the chaotic, postwar world of 1922. ‘The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident,’ he writes of his twinning of Augustine’s Confessions and the Buddha’s Fire Sermon at the end of Part III. The introduction to ‘What the Thunder Said’ invites us to appreciate his deployment of themes widely separated in time and place: ‘the journey to Emmaus, the approach to the Chapel Perilous (see Miss Weston’s book) and the present decay of Eastern Europe’ (in the drafts Eliot’s ‘hooded hordes’ swarm over ‘Polish plains’ rather than ‘endless plains’).
But to what extent was the openness of the poem to its source texts a sign of Eliot’s professional mastery of his medium, of his easy familiarity with literary greats such as Virgil and Dante and Spenser and Shakespeare, and to what extent was it the openness of a cross-gendered hysteric, one with nerves as bad as those of the unnamed woman in ‘A Game of Chess’ who implores her husband to stay with her? Ricks and McCue’s exhaustive notes make conspicuous the dual nature of the relationship between Eliot’s reading and his writing, the sense that his work often communicates of a poet who is at once making thoughtful, purposeful use of earlier texts, and at the same time desperately seeking solace or precedent in the words of others – grasping for something to help him escape the prison in whose lock he has heard the key turn once, and once only:
‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.’
‘WONDERFUL,’ Vivien wrote in the margin of this passage on the manuscript of The Waste Land. Ricks and McCue alert us to Joseph Conrad’s The End of the Tether (‘Why don’t you speak? … What does it mean? … What’s going on in that head of yours? What are you plotting against me there so hard that you can’t say a word?’); a poem in Aldous Huxley’s collection Leda (‘Heart-rending question of women – never answered:/“Tell me, tell me, what are you thinking of?”’); and Conrad Aiken’s The Jig of Forslin (‘What are you thinking?’) – as well as to a variant line of Eliot’s own ‘Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’ (‘he sees knows what you are thinking’). The connection between the narrator’s emotional paralysis and the state of shellshocked soldiers returning from the First World War is implicit in the unspoken response that follows the woman’s obsessive demands and questions: ‘I think we are in rats’ alley’ – a trench in the Somme sector of the Western Front – ‘Where the dead men lost their bones.’
Should we consider the ‘personage’ uniting and seeing the poem as a dispassionate, authoritative seer, or as a helplessly traumatised visionary? The answer is of course both; the point of the question is to suggest the contradictory extremes charted by Eliot’s poetry, and necessary to it: central to his imagination was the compulsion to pit his yearning for discipline and control against a longing to renounce the will and yield to unknowable, inexplicable forces – ‘The awful daring of a moment’s surrender’. His use of allusions is particularly interesting in this respect, for while his notes detailing his sources allowed him to figure himself as a scholarly sage instructing his disciples in the canon of great texts, the borrowings themselves – or should we call them thefts? – can be read as enacting an opposite state of affairs, as dramatising a mind overrun and defenceless:
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon – O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
The choice of allusions here is often happily justified by people who have engaged with the poem in an academic context. What such justifications tend to overlook is the primary impression that the lines convey – that Eliot is speaking in tongues.
In one of his own accounts of the relationship between a poet’s reading and writing, in the conclusion to The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (his 1932-33 Norton Lectures), Eliot discusses the mysterious processes which give certain phrases or images what he calls ‘personal saturation value’; by this he means that they come to represent or incarnate ‘depths of feeling into which we cannot peer’. The model of intertextuality that he outlines in this conclusion characteristically involves death by water – a submarine descent followed by a wondrous sea-change and a miraculous resurrection. The imagery of ‘Kubla Khan’, for instance, had its origins in Coleridge’s reading; that imagery ‘sank to the depths of Coleridge’s feeling, was saturated, transformed there – “those are pearls that were his eyes” – and brought up into daylight again’. Coleridge, alas, or so Eliot argues, made poor use of the passage in Purchas his Pilgrimage that his opium-addled subconscious reconfigured, because he lacked ‘organisation’. Shakespeare, on the other hand, was able to find a ‘rational use and justification’ for the endless stream of saturated fragments rising from the ocean floor of his mind to its surface: ‘again and again the right imagery, saturated while it lay in the depths of Shakespeare’s memory, will rise like Anadyomene from the sea.’
The maritime opening of ‘Marina’ offers one of Eliot’s most explicit and moving renditions of the theme of loss and recovery so important to his sense of the imagination’s economy. Eliot considered the scene in which Pericles discovers that his daughter Marina (who was born at sea and has been long thought dead by her father) is in fact alive, to be the finest of the ‘recognition scenes’ in late Shakespeare:
What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.
Ricks and McCue’s multiple verbal analogues are perhaps best approached as an attempt to aggregate all the candidates from Eliot’s reading that might have sunk, saturated with whatever meanings and emotions, into the poet’s subconscious; and which then, whether impelled upwards by suffering and horror as in The Waste Land, or released, as in ‘Marina’, by the operations of grace, return as images, unbidden and beyond all customary perspectives – ‘more distant than stars and nearer than the eye’. It is interesting that in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism Eliot describes inspiration as ‘negative’, as the momentary overcoming of inhibitions, as an unexpected breaching of the self’s defences:
To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers – which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than like a sudden relief from an intolerable burden.
‘Marina’ again exquisitely captures this dream of ‘a world of time beyond me’:
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.
This poem’s faintly sketched titular character is one of a number of dreamlike female figures, part-saint, part-muse, who populate Eliot’s poetry of the late 1920s and 1930s, and promise a momentary lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear; but not until he married, in 1957, his secretary at Faber & Faber, Valerie Fletcher, who was 38 years his junior, did these burdens truly lift, and Eliot awaken to the earthly joys so vividly renounced, or moved beyond, in poems such as ‘Marina’:
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning
Are become unsubstantial.
Eliot’s final edition of his poetry (Collected Poems 1909-62) concludes with ‘A Dedication to My Wife’, in which the doting husband publicly commemorated the happiness of his second marriage with an explicitness that surprised many (‘The breathing in unison//Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other’). I once heard that F.R. Leavis so disliked this poem that he stapled up the last page of his copy of the book so as not to have to read it. This tribute, it turns out, was one of a number of poems that Eliot composed celebrating his union with the woman whom he addresses as ‘the tall girl’ in erotic verses such as ‘How the Tall Girl and I Play Together’ and ‘How the Tall Girl’s Breasts Are’. I doubt that these would have appealed much to Leavis either, but they do offer graphic additional proof in support of Peter Ackroyd’s assertion in his 1984 biography of Eliot that ‘when he allowed his sexuality free access, when he was not struggling with his own demons, it was of a heterosexual kind’:
When my tall girl sits astraddle on my lap,
She with nothing on and I with nothing on
And our middle parts are about their business,
I can stroke her back and her long white legs
And both of us are happy. Because she is a tall girl.
Eliot copied these verses out by hand in a notebook entitled Valerie’s Own Book; and while it’s good to know that, after the prolonged misery of his life with Vivien, he found bliss with the adored and adoring Valerie, it’s also hard not to feel that such ‘private words’, to quote from the last line of ‘A Dedication to My Wife’, should have remained so.
In the preface that Ezra Pound composed for Valerie Eliot’s edition of the original manuscript of The Waste Land, Pound declared, in justification of the project, that ‘the more we know of Eliot, the better.’ Possibly aficionados of any given writer will feel something like this about their chosen one, but it seems to me that there is something distinctive and extreme about the curiosity aroused by Eliot in both his contemporaries and in those who have pursued an interest in his work in the half-century following his death. One of the reasons that the ‘Tall Girl’ poems are so dispiriting is because, in their banality, they threaten to disperse the aura of mystery that has enveloped Eliot more or less since the publication of ‘Prufrock’. As his fame spread, anecdotes and legends about Eliot’s private life flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. They were propagated in particular by younger poets who had fallen under his spell, and felt driven to seek out biographical sources for the power and originality of the poetry they found so mesmerising: W.H. Auden believed that Eliot had had a mystical vision when he was a young child, Hart Crane was convinced that he was secretly gay, while Delmore Schwartz was a fount of scurrilous stories about Eliot’s sex life, which, according to Schwartz, included a relationship with the Jewish woman referred to as Rachel née Rabinovitch in ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’, who had jilted him and so made him anti-Semitic.
This mystique was principally the result of the compelling amalgam of the reticent and the confessional in his poetry, which often seems to encrypt some private guilt or nameless crime, but in a manner that renders inextricable the ‘lark’, to use Bennett’s terms, from the ‘serious’: ‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?/Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?’; ‘And you wait for a knock and the turning of a lock for you know the hangman’s waiting for you/And perhaps you’re alive/And perhaps you’re dead/Hoo ha ha/Hoo ha ha/Hoo.’ The tight grip that Valerie (who died in 2012) kept on the Eliot archive in the decades between his death and hers heightened curiosity about the material that it was assumed she was protecting from prying eyes. It is only recently, therefore, that the Eliot industry has been able to set about slaking this interest, but it has done so on all fronts and with impressive thoroughness: over the last five years six doorstopping volumes of the letters have been published, taking us up to 1933; four volumes (of a projected eight) of a digital edition of Eliot’s complete prose have been released; the first volume of a two-volume biography by Robert Crawford has appeared, greatly increasing our knowledge of Eliot’s life up until the publication of The Waste Land; and to these is now added this utterly authoritative edition of the text of the poems, which restores a missing line to ‘The Hollow Men’, prints a range of previously unpublished poems (from off-cuts of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to the late erotic verses), presents an editorial composite of material relating to The Waste Land, assembles all of Eliot’s ‘Improper Rhymes’ (mainly consisting of the obscene and racist King Bolo poems Eliot so enjoyed composing and circulating among his male cronies), and even finds room for Eliot’s translation of St-John Perse’s Anabase. The apparatus includes, as well as the commentary, details of drafts and of textual variants, the publication history of individual poems and of each Eliot collection, a comprehensive bibliography, a wonderfully useful set of indexes, accounts of recordings made by Eliot, of stage and radio adaptations made by others – oh, in short, the lot! It is a phenomenal achievement; and although reading it cover to cover can feel like being stuck in some brilliantly devious Borges story, it surely sets standards that few succeeding editors of the complete works of poets of the last century are likely to attempt or to attain. Its only near rival in the ratio of text to editorial matter is The Complete Poems of Philip Larkin edited by Archie Burnett, a director, like Ricks, of Boston University’s Editorial Institute (currently, alas, under threat of closure), which bulked out Larkin’s four slim volumes to a staggering 729 pages.
While not all of the verbal analogues that the book’s copious notes offer seem to me valuable or convincing, the extracts given from Eliot’s letters and criticism are nearly always illuminating and worth reading. Some of these will be new even to Eliot experts, for the editors draw on correspondence that hasn’t yet been published, as well as on a range of recondite sources and on various archival materials known only to select Eliot scholars. The effect is of a vast collage in which well-known quotes, such as Eliot’s description of The Waste Land as ‘just a piece of rhythmical grumbling’, jostle with extracts that one vaguely remembers and passages that are completely fresh. Some of the extracts from letters that will appear in later volumes of Eliot’s correspondence are particularly memorable. On New Year’s Day of 1936, for instance, he wrote to his brother Henry with an account of his state of mind while writing The Waste Land that vividly captures the disastrous aspects of his marriage to Vivien:
I was of course too much engrossed in the horrors of my private life to notice much outside; and I was suffering from (1) a feeling of guilt in having married a woman I detested, and consequently a feeling that I must put up with anything (2) perpetually being told, in the most plausible way, that I was a clodhopper and a dunce. Gradually, through making friends, I came to find that English people of the sort that I found congenial were prepared to take me quite as an ordinary human being, and that I had merely married into a rather common suburban family with a streak of abnormality which in the case of my wife had reached the point of liking to give people pain. I shall always be grateful to a few people like the Woolfs who unconsciously helped me to regain my balance and self-respect.
This was written four years after he’d decided that he could cope no more with Vivien’s unrelenting demands, which are figured here as positively sadistic, making his break for freedom by accepting an invitation to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard, and then, on his return from America, lodging with a priest in Kensington rather than returning to his increasingly distraught and desperate wife. They never divorced, but Eliot managed pretty much to avoid all contact with her until she was committed, in 1938, to an insane asylum near Finsbury Park. The following year he bleakly declared in a letter to John Hayward, with whom he would share a flat after the Second World War:
I have no family, no career, and nothing particular to look forward to in this world. I doubt the permanent value of everything I have written; I never lay with a woman I liked, loved or ever felt any strong physical attraction to; I no longer even regret this lack of experience; I no longer even feel acutely the desire for progeny which was very acute once.
Cited in the notes to ‘Marina’ as part of a discussion of Eliot’s attitudes to parenthood, the passage suggests how deeply the role of the ascetic who had ‘divested’ himself ‘of the love of created beings’, to adapt the epigraph from the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross used for Sweeney Agonistes, appealed to Eliot as the only means of dissolving his feelings of shame and guilt. That a man capable of such a self-portrait should have ended up composing the ‘Tall Girl’ poems registers as a glorious upending of his quest to lead a saintly, almost posthumous existence. ‘Because I do not hope to turn again,’ opened ‘Ash-Wednesday’, Eliot’s most penitent and penitential sequence, indicating his commitment to a life of self-denial; in the event his marriage to Valerie would instigate a ‘sea-change’ as miraculous and unpredictable as any in the late Shakespeare plays that meant so much to him.
In the 1930s, however, Eliot was concerned not with his chances of achieving personal let alone sexual happiness, which, as the letter to Hayward indicates, he rated pretty low, but with the narrative of personal salvation that he formally initiated by joining the Anglican Church in June 1927. It was as a Christian that Eliot interpreted the crises leading up to the outbreak of the war. In the stirring last paragraph of ‘Thoughts after Lambeth’ (Eliot’s response to the resolutions passed by Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 1930), he figures himself and his fellow Christians as the last surviving hopes of Western Civilisation. Yet also implicit in his rhetoric of the embattled few is the notion that the looming political turmoil may offer a militant Christian church the opportunity to present itself as the only solution to the world’s ills. Particularly striking, and unpalatable to the non-Christian reader, is Eliot’s conviction that secular society is doomed:
The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilised but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilisation, and save the World from suicide.
Ezra Pound, who saw sound economics – or at least his own distinctive brand of sound economics – as the obvious answer to Europe and America’s social and political troubles, was particularly baffled by Eliot’s turn to religion. ‘This beats me, beats me,’ was all he could answer when, in the course of a visit to il miglior fabbro in Italy, Eliot confided his anxiety about the fate of his soul after death.
Pound, inevitably, is the writer who features most often in this edition’s assemblage of contexts for Eliot’s poetry – nudging, cajoling, haranguing, harrumphing, decisively wielding his blue pencil or scribbling ‘echt’ against the good bits in the margins of The Waste Land. Dante, Shakespeare, Jules Laforgue and Tennyson also rack up substantial entries in the index. Those, however, schooled in the pantheon of great writers championed in Eliot’s criticism, and familiar with his capacious salon des refusés, may be surprised to find lines and phrases by Emerson and Whitman cropping up so often as potential influences, for Eliot’s few public comments on their work were at best lukewarm, at worst dismissive. ‘Let there be commerce between us,’ Pound declared, like some trade negotiator, in ‘A Pact’, a poem of 1913 in which he hails Whitman as his ‘pig-headed father’. The many links discerned by Ricks and McCue between lines by the hyper-educated Eliot and his rude self-taught forebear suggest that a current of paternity ran between Whitman and Eliot too, but one that the fastidious, Dante-quoting, Anglicised exile wasn’t keen to acknowledge.
The nature and extent of Pound’s editing of the poem that started out in life as ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ (a quote from Our Mutual Friend) only became apparent when Valerie’s facsimile edition of the drafts of The Waste Land was published in 1971. The 54 leaves of the manuscript of Eliot’s most famous poem, which he had given to the American lawyer and patron of the arts John Quinn late in 1922, came to light in 1968, three years after Eliot’s death. While at work on her edition, Valerie consulted Pound in the hope that he might be able to recall details of his discussions with Eliot about cuts and changes. Alas, now in his eighties, Pound could remember nothing, even when, in June 1969, she and Pound visited the New York Public Library together, and he held again the drafts of the poem that so influenced the history of 20th-century poetry: no flood of memories prompted him to speak. ‘But,’ Valerie later recalled, ‘he was so moved by seeing it that he just sat for a long time in front of it, tears in his eyes.’